Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Fiction International #45: About Seeing, now available

The latest issue of Fiction International, the fine fiction magazine published here in San Diego, now has a new issue. #45, About Seeing, features a lot of great work, and also includes the first part of my non-fiction narrative, “We Need To Talk.”

Anyone who is interested in the leading edge of contemporary short fiction should check the issue out, and purchase a subscription.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Ooteote’s Vertaallab (Translation Lab)

The online journal ooteoote, out of the Netherlands, named after Jan Hanlo's legendary tone poem, identifies itself as an online information hub where Dutch and Flemish authors report on literary news and related concerns from home and abroad.

Issue #36 of ooteote’s Vertaallab (Translation Lab) features a poem of mine from The End of America, Book 8, and you can find it here.

For more information about ooteeote, click here (note: opening this page in Google Chrome will make it easier to translate).

The journal has separate sections for poetry, prose, and essays. For more details on some of the poems it has recently published, including work by K. Lorraine Graham, Jane Leusink, William Thies, Anne Cotton, and many more in various languages, try the poetry link or just click here.

My thanks go out to fantastic poet, performer, and musician Rozalie Hirs for selecting my work for the most recent issue of the Vertaallab section.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Brief Reviews: Amy De'Ath and Murat Nemet-Nejat

Amy De’Ath’s Erec & Enide is a small but impressive first book by a poet whose work is certain to get more attention as time goes on. While on the surface, the poems frequently create shimmering, often romantic scenes and interactions, that surface always comes along with a level of sharp political and social critique, and is often disrupted by language that is more blunt and ironic than the poems set up readers to expect. Gender dynamics within individual sexual relationships are often connected not just to individual human isolation but also to many larger scale political problems.

The poems that result have a lyrical sophistication and sometimes even a gauzy sheen, but they also feature sharper, very much non Art Deco edges that break out in unexpected places:

Said Erec to Enede, the sun burst
down on my sails and gallowing tore
my winnow North.

Said Enide to Erec, I don’t know how

to soothe you.

Said Erec to Enide, the airline strikes pulled
holes in my interior liver tissue, and
I daren’t touch a drop.

There’s humor throughout these poems too, but it’s so sneaky in its bite that it’s easy to trip up and be amused just at the moment that something dangerous is about to happen.

Ultimately, the range of tones and surprising shifts of context in Erec & Enide make for a little book with a much broader variety of concerns than might at first appear. De’Ath writes poetry capable of lyrical power, ironic rupturing, and a complex awareness of political and social ideologies, all of which she handles with an always precisely inflected literary style.


Murat Nemet-Nejat’s poems in the The Spiritual Life of Replicants take his thorough understanding of the history of Turkish poetry and modify it in fascinating ways that respond to the cultural and media conditions of life in the contemporary United States, where he now lives. Nemet-Nejat is the foremost contemporary translator of Turkish into English, and the anthology he edited, Eda: An Anthology of Contemporary Turkish Poetry, is a must read for anyone interested in the last one hundred years of Turkish poetry. Replicants features a number of usually short, often fragmented lyrics that frequently make use of characteristics of Turkish poetry and the Turkish language more generally, for instance in the way sentences and phrases slide sideway into extended sequences rather than being constantly dead-stopped by periods.

Nemet-Nejat’s exploration both of materiality and the mental procedures whereby people try to grasp phenomena develops through the poems based on an animist philosophy that doesn’t make overly simple distinctions between living and non-living matter. The poems also frequently play with and undermine the relationship between perception and that which is supposedly perceived: “the yellow of the carpet/ lurks in the yellow of my eye/ and waits.” Fascinatingly, the book also develops as an extended critique of U.S. cultural attitudes through a reading of the Ridley Scott film Blade Runner and an interrogation of what it means to be human or machine in the context of capitalist power. The boundaries between poetry and prose are also frequently undermined, although the book moves closer towards prose narrative in many of its later sections. Replicants is therefore an exploration both of cultural and aesthetic hybridity, although like the best hybrid approaches, it doesn’t seek to resolve its differences but to exploit and grow them.

The shape and formatting of the book become a bit annoying at times, and some of the fragments feel like mere wisps of language, although ultimately I concluded that even the slightest wisps were important to the author’s sense of the physical world as incredibly close and concrete, but never more than partially graspable. His sense that human desire often tries to control what it cannot hold anchors many of the problems both of individual people and of the larger cultural dynamics that develop over the course of the book. The prose sections which conclude the book become more explicitly an exploration of character, and the way people from differing cultural contexts struggle and fail to understand each other, while finding themselves part of the same often mysterious world:

“The damn guy is impossible. Do you know one day he made me sit in a chair and read a whole damn short story, for one and a half hours, about this girl in a mental asylum, Karala, Aura, or something, who had attempted suicide.”

The Spiritual Life of Replicants is a unique book of poetry with a well-considered philosophical underpinning, even and perhaps especially at those moments when it veers close to falling apart.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Experimental Haiku and Roadrunner Journal

The online journal Roadrunner, more often referred to as R’r, publishes consciously contemporary and experimental haiku—and yes, it is possible to experiment with haiku.

The issues frequently feature a judged competition, the Scorpion Prize and for the most recent issue, I was the judge. Check out my essay, and the haiku themselves, here.

Other recent Scorpion Prize judges include Marjorie Perloff, Robert Grenier, Tom Raworth, Rae Armantrout, Joseph Massey, and Ron Silliman. I’m glad to be in their company and to have had the chance to read the work in Roadrunner closely.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Advice for Students Who Have Left School and Still Want To Be Writers

If you're out of college now, or were never there, and are still thinking that you want to become a writer, here's some great advice on how to do that from Daniel Gutstein, poet, short story writer, and playwright.

Current and former students of mine should definitely read what Dan has to say.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

On Blogging and Much Else: Women Who Write Poetry Criticism (Roundtable)

If you’re a student or former student of mine who has asked me about blogging, this discussion, featuring some of my favorite writers currently working in North America, is essential reading. It’s also essential reading for anyone interested in blogging, writing about literature, or gender. And people who think they’re not interested in any of those things would benefit from reading it too.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Janette Kim Larson and Mark Wallace: On Teaching the Poetry of Catherine Wagner

Janette Kim Larson, a former student of mine and a fine poet, is doing some research on contemporary poetry and asked me some questions about the work of Catherine Wagner (pictured above), with particular emphasis on the experience of teaching her work in the university classroom.

You can check out a recently published poem by Janette here at

And here’s our discussion:

JKL: How did you first discover Cathy and what was so striking about her work to you?

MW: It’s funny that you use the word “discover” (although not surprising) because I didn’t discover her work at all in the way that the word is usually meant.

I organized a literary reading series in Washington, D.C. from 1995-2005, The Ruthless Grip Literary Series, named after the experimental art gallery and artist co-op, Ruthless Grip, where the series was located for its first five years. The Ruthless Grip reading series, along with other D.C. reading series at Bridge Street Book and the DC/AC Arts Center, were and are known (all three still exist) for their focus on avant garde and various aesthetically and culturally extreme literature. That focus contrasted greatly with the more mainstream approaches found in the universities.

Cathy was quite a young poet (I wasn’t that old myself) when she wrote me in the late 90s and asked me for a reading in the series both for her and her husband at the time, Martin Corless-Smith, also a poet. I don’t think I’d heard of them, but Cathy had grown up in Baltimore and some of the poets I knew were aware of her work. This was several years before her first full-length book, Miss America, came out, but I think she had published a chapbook of the magazine poems that reappeared in Miss America. And Martin’s first book, Of Piscator, was either already published or came out shortly thereafter. They both gave a good reading, and there was the usual sets of poetry conversations afterwards, since a lot of writers came to those events and everybody would stay together talking for some hours. Since then, Cathy and I have been in touch many times about all sorts of literary matters, readings and conferences and so on. I invited her out to Cal State San Marcos to read in April 2007. It has been great to see her work continue to be published and to get more attention, which it deserves.

JKL: Why did you decide to include her work in a grad and undergrad contemporary lit seminar (513)? If you have assigned her elsewhere, please let me know where and why?

MW: I teach Cathy’s work quite commonly in my grad/undergrad cross-listed contemporary literature course, and I’ll be teaching it again this fall, although in the context of her work and the work of others that appears in the recent anthology Gurlesque. And I taught Miss America once in an undergraduate poetry class at American University in Washington, D.C.

Cathy’s work is rather uniquely well-suited to the needs of the students that take 513, I think. Of the full range of poetic approaches at the moment, hers is hardly the most extreme. In a time when many poems switch subjects rapidly, or undermine and critique in numerous ways the idea of a central subject, Cathy’s poems are still mainstream enough to be recognizable to students unfamiliar with contemporary poetry, simply because they often have identifiable subjects (a young woman dealing with love, or motherhood, or buying a house, etc.) commonly recognizable as archetypal American middle class and women’s issues. No all her poems do that, and some of the poems in her most recent book, My New Job, maybe veer farther away than ever from having unified central subjects, although the job is of course archetypal too.

At the same time, Cathy’s poems avoid and critique more expected ways of looking at their subjects, and she has a consciously jagged and often staccato approach to language that gives her an extremely unique style. Her poems in Macular Hole, for instance, displace the idea that human emotions are at the center of having babies and buying houses and much else. Instead the poems explore the physical and social structures that shape emotional reactions. A mother and baby have bodies that act as bodies and need to be recognized as such rather than swaddled in sentimentality, especially since sentimentality often becomes a way of ignoring and denying the kinds of problems that mothers face. This approach leads Cathy often to use more clinical language than expected in mainstream poems, and shows emotion as being conditioned by social structures rather than simply sweeping those structures aside.

The bluntness of her language is not simply an emotional bluntness, although her poems have those moments also: the bluntness raises the issue of what kind of language people use when they speak about human bodies, and women’s bodies specifically. And the playful and purposeful complexity of her word choices leads to poems that never quite present these issues with easily transparent representational imagery. Instead, the focus moves in and out and approaches the subject at many odd and yet ultimately insightful angles. She manages to make archetypal subjects strange again, and through that, reveals important issues that have often been covered up or overlooked.

Add it all up, and her work operates on an edge between mainstream and more extreme avant approaches that is very helpful for me in leading students away from conventional expectations about the language and subject matter of poems, while giving them enough grounding in familiar subjects that they don’t feel lost. From there I can I send them on to even more extreme poems. In that way, her writing is not only fantastic on its own but serves well as a gateway to the variety of challenging aesthetic approaches available in contemporary poetry.

JKL: How do students typically respond to her work? Are they horrified by her stark honesty? Pleased by the boldness in her voice? Confused and frustrated by lack of accessibility? All of the above?

MW: Teaching would be a lot easier if there was any typical student response to anything. Certainly her work has caused all of the reactions you describe, but I also have students who feel liberated by her stark honesty, upset at the boldness or bluntness of her voice, or excited by some of the difficulties her language creates. Some people read her work and are really energized by it; to others it’s just an assignment that they want to get over with. I’m happy of course when students like the work I’m teaching, and I hope my enthusiasm for that work gives people reason to believe that enthusiasm about poetry really is possible. Ultimately what I want is for students to be able to talk and write effectively about the poems I teach. When people can articulate what something is, they become more likely to be pleased by their relationship to it.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Brief Reviews: Poetry by Stephanie Balzer and Gina Myers

For many reasons, I haven’t had a lot of time for blogging or for reading new poetry this summer, but here are a couple of brief chapbook reviews to tide things over until I find more time again, and an intriguing couple of chapbooks they are.

The prose poems in Stephanie Balzer’s Faster, Faster (Cue Editions) create, in their line by line shifts and twists, an ultimately melancholy and insightful wittiness full of energy and the pleasure of words. Balzer knows both the psychological foibles of people and the structural limitations of the environments they create for themselves, but the narrator in these poems is never simply an observer. Instead she finds herself often in a perpetual in-between, trying to connect with others and not being able to, or connecting with them but needing to back off when they impose their problems on her, instead of trying to work them out in some mutual process. Balzer’s not afraid to examine political conditions either; the pieces are filled with references to the CIA, Starbucks, HBO, The New York Times, McDonald’s, and other people and organizations that create dangerous limits on human interaction. The sly rewrites of phrasing from Juliana Spahr’s This Connection of Everyone with Lungs never come off as mere tributes, but reveal Balzer’s own concerns with an inevitable web of connections that frustrates even more than it promises. “I confess: my state of mind is America. ‘something to do w entropy, i think. the force of nothingness so much stronger than its opposite.’”

I really enjoyed the understatement and surface simplicity of the poems in Gina Myers’ chapbook False Spring (Spooky Girlfriend Press). A continuation from Myers’ earlier work of her moody re-envisioning of the New York School casual tone transferred to more sparse and economically depressed environments, the poems in False Spring are much more minimal than in her earlier book A Model Year, saying no more than needs to be said, but implying deeper wells of alienation than the surface elaborates. I was reminded of the various Rexroth translations of ancient Chinese poems in terms of how much a few words can evoke, yet there’s nothing indirect about these poems. They lay out the narrator’s struggles flatly and bluntly. The impression of empty rooms, missed possibilities, and unkept urban spaces kept resonating for me long after I put the book down. “Weddings & funerals in the span of a week./Each year, the family grows & shrinks./ I search the classifieds for a new job,/a new place to live, a change.”